Retired principal hopes to catch Derby break

John Clay
John Clay

The questioner asked just how likely it was that the retired principal's horse would be sent on to the Kentucky Derby.

"At my age," shot back 75-year-old Tom McCarthy, "I know I'll never get another chance."

But then who thought he would get this chance? Seriously? A Louisville native who was principal at Seneca and Durrett and Valley High Schools. An owner and trainer, mainly of cheap claimers, who two years ago didn't even have a horse, thanks to a friend who claimed his only entry.

"A so-called friend," said McCarthy on Thursday.

Ah, but last summer, the retired principal just happened to be perusing the Racing Form when he noticed the breeding of a horse named General Quarters, one McCarthy unsuccessfully bid on in the sales ring the year before.

General Quarters just happened to win that $20,000 maiden claimer, the same day McCarthy claimed him.

Now, less than a year later, General Quarters, winner of the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes in Tampa Bay, is a realistic challenger to win the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland and, hopefully, punch McCarthy's ticket to the Derby.

"The phone has been ringing off the hook," McCarthy said. "The New York Times called before you did."

It's a good story. McCarthy's grandfather was a jockey in Ireland, and the family brought their love of horses to the United States. Young Tom heard all the stories.

With a biology degree, McCarthy was accepted to veterinary school at Ohio State when the Army called. When he departed the service in 1959, he got involved in horses, winning his first race at Churchill in 1962.

"But back then they didn't have winter racing," McCarthy said. "I needed a job."

He started out as a science teacher, then worked his way to up to principal before retiring in 1990. Restless for something to do, he got back involved with horses, and he's had a little success over the years, winning 13 of 236 starts since 1991, according to Equibase.

When his "so-called" friend claimed his only runner, McCarthy attended the 2007 Keeneland yearling sale eyeing a couple of prospects. The first was by Sky Mesa out of an Unbridled's Song mare. McCarthy bid to $14,000 but let it go before the selling price of $20,000. When his second yearling of interest went beyond his checkbook, McCarthy wished he had bought the first.

That breeding rang a bell when he happened to notice the claimer that day at Churchill.

"After I claimed him, I ran him in the Bashford Manor," said McCarthy of a sixth-place finish. "He led at the top of the stretch, but he was young and did a lot of baby things."

Still, McCarthy felt confident enough to send General Quarters to Florida for the winter. A scheduling conflict, however, caused the horse to originally be put in the name of trainer Mark Miller. When McCarthy arrived in Tampa a week later, he trained the horse, though Miller's name appeared in the program for General Quarter's second-place finish in the Pasco Stakes and then the Davis win on Feb. 14.

General Quarters followed with a fifth-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby a month later, but "He got in all types of trouble," McCarthy said. "He came back all cut up. At one point, his nose hit the fanny of the horse in front of him."

Since returning to Churchill, General Quarters has trained splendidly, including a sizzling work of :58.20 over 5 furlongs, the fastest of 17 at that distance last Saturday.

"I think as the distance gets longer, the stronger he's going to be," McCarthy said.

Maybe you could say the same thing about the retired principal?

"I've always been sitting on the outside looking in for the big races," McCarthy said. "I always thought, 'Boy, if I only had one.' It's a game of breaks. Hopefully, this is mine."

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